I want to learn how to maintain the flow of a novel's plot - there are so many characters and events to organize. What I find most difficult is the way a writer needs to shift from one phase of the story to the other, and then pick them up again and continue - and all the while, the writer needs to develop and maintain the interest of the reader.

How do I "keep the story moving" when I'm constantly shifting between different threads of the plot?

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    I'm not sure what the question is. Are you asking about how to maintain the pace of the book, and the interest of the reader? May 15 '12 at 12:56
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    Carol, I've made some edits to make this question more specific (and hence, more answerable). I hope my edits were true to your original intention - if not, you can make further edits. Questions on Writers.SE work best if you present a clear problem to be solved; your original phrasing wasn't entirely clear on the problem, but I hope I've understood you correctly.
    – Standback
    May 15 '12 at 20:50
  • Thanks Standback for the edit. You no doubt understood what I meant and made it more specific. Thanks. May 16 '12 at 9:41
  • Read any of the Worldwar books by Harry Turtledove for a great example of how to do this. The author is great at juggling a lot of characters and plot elements. May 17 '12 at 15:13

Look at Lord of the Rings as an example. Tolkein has a lot of characters, all doing different thinks in different places, and meeting up in odd combinations. So what he does is focus on a particular story for a while, progresses one group or individual, and leaves the others to get on with it. Sometimes, this is for half a book, sometimes, for a paragraph.

The important thing is to leave the characters in a position that they can wait in for a while. In prison, or climbing hills or similar works quite well. Or even just "off somewhere" and recounting the back-story when they meet up again ( as with Gandalf ).

The story is kept moving, because the current focus is always driving on, however you also have a concern for the other story passages, because they were left incomplete.

Of course, making sure that it all hangs together, geographically and chronologically, is a real challenge, that even Tolkein didn't quite get right all of the time.

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    George RR Martin employs a similar technique. Each chapter is simply named after the viewpoint character and the action continues to progress from their point of view. Other viewpoint characters will generally be discussed and those events will either be summaries or previews of other events that have been/will be discussed. It keeps the action moving and flowing and keeps you interested in what comes next. Granted, Martin is juggling a lot of stories and it can turn into a hot mess at times but his style is still worth looking at.
    – Jed Oliver
    May 15 '12 at 16:50

There are many ways, and this is how I would do it:

The first thing is, finish your first draft. There is nothing you can do until then. Any planning or thinking is a waste of time before then.

Then, create scenes from your work. It doesn't matter if you are a plotter or pantser. Take what you have written (and not what you wanted to write), and write down all the scenes that exist. For example, "Scene 20: Hero chases evil wizard to recover stolen magical sword."

You can write these scenes in a normal text editor. Then look at each scene and ask yourself:

  • Does this scene have a good conflict, that matters? I.e., not a conflict like James can't find the remote control to the TV

  • Does this scene move the story forward? If you have a cool action scene which does nothing for the story, change it or get rid of it

  • Any scene in which the main character is passive, get rid of it. So no scenes where the hero is moaning about his sad life, drinking coffee, or talking about the weather.

The key is, each scene must move the story forward. If the hero has a cool battle with a dragon, but at the end of it he is in the same position as when he started, what's the use? The change each scene brings may be for the better or worse, but it must move the plot.

Another thing I recommend (that not everyone likes), is having a theme for the story, like good triumphs evil. Then you can look at each scene, and see if it clashes with the theme. For example, if your hero beats up innocent people and steals their money, you are breaking your theme. Unless your theme is 'We must do anything to survive.'

Once you have done this, you can decide which scenes to keep, which to throw away or rewrite. At this stage, you can create another scene list, creating the book you wanted to write, and start reworking your draft.

A few iterations of the process (depending on your experience) will get you a book that moves fast, and stays interesting throughout.

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    Some good advice here, although I disagree with two things: I don't think you must have your entire first draft done in order to accomplish anything, and "moving the story forward" can be an internal movement. If the hero is drinking coffee, that's not necessarily a static scene. What else is happening? Does the hero have a conversation which imparts information? Have an epiphany? Figure out how someone was poisoned? Enjoy a moment of pure peace which sustains him through the next crisis? I don't consider that to be useless. May 17 '12 at 2:17
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    I write about the coffee scene because I just read a book where there is a 2000 word scene where all the hero does is drink coffee and think about his sad life. :) This was an action thriller btw. Certainly, if the hero is plotting something, or something important is going on in the background, the scene maybe useful. Regards first draft, I wrote that because it's too easy to become too critical, and stop the novel altogether. May 17 '12 at 7:10
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    I do see your point about self-criticism defeating the novel, and I think for some people it might be a useful technique -- particularly pants writers. I just don't think it's a blanket prescription. I am a very detailed plotter, and a lot of your recommendations are things I'm doing in the planning process. I'm not waiting to put words to paper just so I can rip them up again. May 17 '12 at 9:53

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